My glamorous life began at 4:57am, when my wife got out of bed to put the baby in the swing. I got up with my alarm at 5am and went in to check on her. Little guy, unbeknownst to me, had been thrashing and squawking since he nursed at 3:15am and Sarah hadn’t gotten any sleep since then. She didn’t go to bed much sooner than I did, so I offered to switch with her and sleep on the couch while we waited for the swing to put him back to sleep.
Sarah brought my iPhone to me at 5:15am because the alarm had gone off (oops!), so I started up Koi Pond to let the white noise soothe Joel. It worked: we all dozed until 5:45am, when the delivery person showed up with our biweekly vegetable co-op delivery. I moved the baby to the pack and play and hopped in the shower.
Forty-five minutes later, I was out the door while Sarah went back to sleep. I was bringing the car in for service, so I drove out to the ‘burbs. Even after stopping at Starbucks and plucking a torn contact out of my right eye (yay, cyclops day), I made it to the shop about 40 minutes early. I think was secretly looking forward to hanging out with my iPad in the Wi-Fi-enabled waiting room while watching CNN on a 42″ flat screen.
After about 45 minutes enjoying the relative peace of digital solitude, the mechanic called me down to break the bad news: our engine was on its last legs. The valve clatter I thought (wished? hoped?) I had heard was actually the connecting rod in one of the car’s cylinders.
I sat there sort of stunned. The car is about 8,000 miles, or about 6 months, past its warranty. I sort of sank in the chair and came to grips with the fact that there was nothing I could do, short of buying a new engine (the shop estimated about $8,500, installed) or an entirely new car.
I went for a walk.
Route 22 offers about the least pedestrian-friendly walk you can find in Jerseyâ€”more so in the humid airâ€”but I walked it anyway, thinking about how God has sustained my family through so much and how He would clearly be faithful through this. I prayed for wisdom and headed back to the repair shop. I paid for the oil change and the inspection and eased the still-drivable car out of the parking lot onto the highway. It was just before 10am.
Driving a car that could die at any moment can be a heart-pounding experience, but I mostly took it slow and steady. Sarah called me back (I had tried to get a hold of her earlier). I took a deep breath and gave her the news: the car is nearing its death. She sort of sighed and let me tell her that, while the news was bad, it wasn’t the end of the world. Maybe it’s an opportunity to get a new car that fits our family better (Joel’s rear-facing carseat pushes the front passenger seat uncomfortably toward the dashboard). Or, perhaps, we get a motor with fewer miles and extend the viability of the car. The long and short of it is that not all is lost.
At the start of this year, we set a goal of getting out of debt by the end of 2010. We scrapped and saved and employed more financial discipline in the last six months than in all the eight years of our marriage to reach that goalâ€”I have three dress shirts with a hole in the left elbow that I still wear to the office to remind me of that fact. But, we had to face the reality that our goal would incur a setback.
But, hey, coming into 2010, we had one credit card maxed out and were carrying a balance on two others. Today, we have one card with $5,500 left to pay off and we cancelled the other two. We are, as it turns out, in a far better place to handle this minor emergency than even six months ago. It’s tempting to read irony into difficult circumstances like these. When I reflect on these facts, though, I choose to see providence.
My wife graciously let me stop at a cafe and think about our next steps. I spent from 10am to 12pm thinking, making spreadsheets, and talking to the insightful Brandon Edling (our church’s resident Financial Peace expert). Brandon saved me a ton of time with his simple advice: we made a commitment to get out of debt on the basis of some very good reasons, and this crisis is a chance to reaffirm that commitment. This simple insightâ€”that this event doesn’t mean we have to depart from our valuesâ€”saved me a ton of time looking for some other solution or making a hasty decision.
I headed home (I had actually planned to work remotely but was so distracted that I simply emailed some colleagues that I wouldn’t be available for the day). Because of the veggie co-op delivery earlier that morning, a good dozen or so people were coming to our apartment to pick up their produce. That’s to say things were a little chaotic: it was all I could do to spend time working through my Car Decision Spreadsheet, be quasi-personable to people who came by, and help Sarah take care of the kids (somewhere in there I ate lunch, too).
That went on until about 6pm, when we started getting Dahlia ready for bed. For prayer time, I asked her if we could pray about our car situation together and explained what “broken down” meantâ€”she seemed to take it in stride.
Joel went to bed noiselessly at 8pm, followed shortly by my exhausted wife at around 9pm.
I spent the rest of the evening working on a new budget spreadsheet that lets us enter “what if” scenarios (while watching Season 1 of Rescue Me on Netflix). My father-in-law texted some advice: Jasper Remanufactured Engines could build us a new engine for installation by one of their local, certified service shops. Total cost (not including labor): $3,511. And it comes with a 3-year, 100,000-mile guarantee. They’ve been doing this since 1942, and car geeks know and recommend their work. Sold. Next I have to find a service shop.
The budget spreadsheet took a good few hours, but at the end, I felt confident about exactly what changes we had to put in place for the next few weeks (basically, scale back our credit card payments to the minimum, use our savings toward the engine and replenish it over the next two months), how it was going to impact our debt pay-off plan (it will push another 60-90 days into 2011), and how paying cash for an engine now will benefit us in a 24-month timeframe (we basically come out $1,000 ahead as opposed to paying $1,000 in interest AND we should be able to pay cash for a car two summers from now).
With the decision behind me, I stood on our front stoop outside and watched the silent city. I’m not really the type to lose my head in the midst of trouble, but challenges like this can be wearying. I spent a few minutes enjoying the solitude again and went inside to collapse in bed. It was a little after 2am, the end of an unusually tough day.